Thursday, May 17, 2012

Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov by Fydor Dosteivsky

This is my first real exposure to 19th century Russian literature. I've had a good deal of the 20th century Soviet stuff (thank you Dr. Sigalov!), which two things together made my plowing through The Brothers Karamazov especially interesting. On the one hand, I wasn't burdened by knowledge of Tolstoy, Gogol, Pushkin, or the other old school Russian guys; on the other hand, I know something of how the story ends. Which kind of made it a lot like reading the Bible in reverse order (that's right, I went there). The New Testament being in one sense the story of "hey folks, you had your chance and missed it. Not only did you miss it, but you actively messed up big time- instead of grasping onto the offered salvation, you killed the one guy who could was sent to save you." (Good news for us that that's how he saved us!) The Old Testament, then, being the promise and hope that something big is coming, that will involve either judgment or blessing or both, if only the people are paying attention. In the same way, The Brothers Karamazov is full of the sense of hope and promise that the Russian people are standing on the edge of something great- though whether that great thing will be judgment or blessing will depend on them and what they do with the opportunity when it arrives. The literature produced under the Soviet Union (e.g. Pasternak, Zamyatin, Platonov, Bulgakov) is the New Testament-ish message that the Russians screwed up big time...

Anyway, enough religious stuff, on to the review!

A word on the translation: I asked some of my friends (who know more about this stuff) which was the best to read, and the universal answer was the Pevear/Volokhonsky one. For what it's worth, it was readable and lucid, with excellent notes.

Nominally, this book is a murder mystery. Who killed Fyodor Pavlovich? All signs point to his son Dmitri, but his other sons Ivan and Alyosha (Alexi) aren't convinced...
Most of the book has nothing to do with the nominal plot. Instead, it's a rambling, meandering telling of a brief period of the lives of the Karamazov family by an unnamed narrator who not only sees what they do, but tells us how they think and live. Everything from a private conversation between the Christ-like Elder and Alyosha to the thoughts of Ivan as he struggles with the devil (no mean feat for a professed atheist!).There are asides and jokes and reflections on the meaning of existence, as well as fantastic action scenes (Alyosha's first encounter with the children is my favorite) and enough good natured fun to balance out the occasionally despairing tone.

The three high points (I think, again- this is my first time through) are: the meeting of the Karamazovs with the Elder Zosima; the story of the Grand Inquisitor by Ivan as told to Alyosha; and the struggle between Ivan and the devil (or Ivan and his own mind, if you don't believe in the devil). Somewhat evenly spaced through the book, these three events set the tone and raise the major issues discussed: namely, how will Russia in general and individuals in particular respond to the changing world, a world increasingly different from the ways and traditions of the past. What is the place for faith, God, reason, science, etc in this new world? What will the next generation be like, will it have been too corrupted by the decadent old one? All these questions and more are raised and discussed with honesty, humor, and a mix of hope and despair over the answers.

This book is one that I hope to come back to someday, it's full of humor, philosophy, religion, and character. All the stuff that makes for a great read. My biggest failure in reading the book is that I read it at the beginning of summer, and not deep in the heart of winter. So I'm not sure I always got the full Russian "feel" that I should have...

Also, Kolya rocks!

Coda: There's a movie version from the sixties starring... Yul Brynner and William Shatner! I have to see this!

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